The Liberal Arts of Baseball 101

In New York City, a printer, painter and sometime professor probes the soul of the national pastime
April 07, 1991

In the history of guts and slides—those college courses that help a jock stay eligible—there have been some real all-stars. You know the type: Creative Movement, Introduction to Recreation. Now comes Michael Schacht, as if springing from a D student's dream, offering a course called History of Baseball in America.

Schacht, 55, is a painter, printer and publisher but is not, by training, a professor. Yet each week he places a home plate in front of room 261 at the New School for Social Research, a degree-granting institution in New York City, and invites students to step up and take their cuts. In Schacht's bleachers are fans of all kinds. Sabrmetricians are seated beside people who don't know Ty Cobb from corn on the cob. Although Schacht doesn't mind baseball novices, his pets are the kind who cried at Field of Dreams. "It's primarily for people who love baseball," says Schacht. "Everybody has a good baseball story in his attic, and I'm prodding him to reach back and share it."

"He encourages you to be creative with your feelings about how baseball touches your life," says Martha Smith, a 35-year-old Red Sox fan, new mother and veteran of Schacht's companion course, The Mystique of Baseball. According to the New School's course catalog, Mystique addresses "the karma of baseball, the mythology, eternity, spirituality, religion, zen, the church of baseball." For all that, Smith points out that Schacht's courses involve quizzes, homework and other things of substance. "When we talk current events, it's about Darryl Strawberry's signing with the Dodgers or Pete Rose's getting out of prison," she says.

Both courses last six weeks and are worth one credit; typical classes at the New School last 12 weeks and are worth three. The baseball courses are graded, but Schacht, who has been teaching them for five years, can't remember flunking anyone. As with easy courses throughout the land, these two are rarely undersubscribed: A Schacht class routinely has between 16 and 35 students enrolled.

In Mystique, students are required to keep a daily journal, and at the end of each term Schacht publishes Fan, a magazine comprising the collected works of the class. Fan currently is circulated only at the school, but may be launched publicly in a year or so.

The magazine allows Schacht to dabble in another of his passions—graphic design. He honed his artistic talents in Hartford in the mid-1950s, while riding the pine for the Trinity College baseball team. As he watched Trinity's ace pitcher, Moe Drabowsky, from the dugout, Schacht became fascinated by baseball's dramatic shapes and forms. In the years since, he has depicted some of the game's notable figures in black-and-white silhouettes and in paintings. When painting, he chooses what he deems the quintessential photograph of a player—a shot that captures strengths and personality. Then he re-creates the picture on canvas. "I always paint players from photos taken early in their careers, before they become jaded," he says. "I want the innocence and the enthusiasm of baseball."

Schacht's paintings hang in wildly diverse places. Three are part of the permanent collection of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He produces an ever-changing exhibition for Mickey Mantle's upscale brasserie in New York City. And a portrait of Honus Wagner rests above the counter in the Ideal Restaurant, Schacht's favorite greasy spoon, also in New York.

Schacht's Park Avenue apartment, is filled not only with art but also with memorabilia. On the walls are yellowed photographs of Casey Stengel and Zack Wheat. Exhibited on the shelves are ancient game programs, team yearbooks from the '30s, a bunch of old gloves and a turn-of-the-century catcher's mask. Schacht even keeps a scrapbook of player obituaries. "Is that morbid?" he asks.

Schacht is obsessed with baseball. He admits he has trouble separating it from "the real world." He quotes from a recent piece in Fan, contributed by the magazine's design director, Tony Palladino, as representative of his own thinking: "At this point in my life I'm sliding into home plate, racing the ball to the catcher's mitt with all my strength and power. And it doesn't really matter what the call is because I feel safe in my performance."

Now that's a slide.

PHOTOGARTH VAUGHANPortraits by the artist reflect baseball's innocent side.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)